A Friend Strong History
It's Easy!" & The Be A Friend Project
#Be Friend Strong
Dedicated to a bullied 7-year-old boy living in a foster care group home in New York in the late 1980's. Wherever "Stephen" is today, he inspired this story which became a musical and has grown into a mission.
THE (WAAAAAY) BACK STORY:
Little Stephen was smart, kind and sensitive - and he was the non-stop target of bullying by other kids in the group home for 7-12 year olds who found entertainment in teasing him to tears. Jennifer Young worked evening shifts at the group home and, wanting to comfort Stephen, she made up a special bedtime story just for him about a little boy named "Jed" who was all alone and felt worthless - very much like Stephen. Until one day, Jed discovered he had a magic power... when Jed ran fast down the sidewalk, he would run right into his future self as an adult - a time travel! In that future, Jed would see the happy life he was destined to live and how much love would surround him. These treks into his future filled Jed with enough hope that he could survive the sadness when he returned to his present as an "unwanted" child, again. Every night that Jennifer worked, Stephen asked for this special bedtime story about the time-traveling Jed.
It was decades after leaving that job - and Stephen had surely grown into an adult that hopefully did find his worth, happiness and love - that Jennifer wrote down that bedtime story into a middle-grade (as yet unpublished) novel called "THE FUTURE OF JED TRAVIS."
THE BACK STORY:
In 2013, Jennifer Young and January Akselrad, had been in business as creative partners for 4 years already in a company they named SEE THE WISH, founded to educate through entertainment. They had a line of "classroom plays & musicals that taught curriculum and character" called Dramaterials - Theater Kits created from January's past original works as a Drama Teacher in the Bronx, New York. Motivated to give educators a theater unit on the topic of bullying, Jennifer wrote her first play to add to the Dramaterials line: "The Bully and The Bystanders," which she based on the story of "The Future of Jed Travis." January, the seasoned Playwright of the pair, dug in to add her edits and composed 3 songs: "It's Easy!", "Why Didn't Anyone?" and "What Can I Do." This anti-bullying play with songs became the best selling Theater Kit for See The Wish.
A popular choice among teachers, "The Bully & The Bystanders" was the impetus for the full-length "It's Easy!" and came with 3 songs including "Speak Up, Reach Out" (originally titled from "What Can I Do") which was made into a song video under the direction of amazing summer interns, Ben Weiss and Megan Litt!
The company's theater production arm, See The Wish ONSTAGE, had already produced two original musicals written and composed by January; for the first time, the partners collaborated to write a third, building on "The Bully and The Bystanders." January composed 18 new musical numbers to transform this classroom play into a full-length family musical with 21 songs.
THE STORY USUALLY GETS TOLD FROM THIS POINT:
In early 2015, the Playwrights collaborated with the Riverdale Rising Stars JR theater program of the Riverdale YM-YWHA in the Bronx, NY, to debut this new, full-length family show re-titled as "IT'S EASY! The Anti-Bullying Musical" as a worldwide premier and a workshop.
By the end of the 4-show run, the new musical earned nominations for “Outstanding New Musical” and “Outstanding Ensemble” from the National Youth Arts Awards, but it won something even better: the inspiration and hearts of the middle school theater kids that originated the show's 24 characters. The youth cast asked the Playwrights for a way to continue carrying the show's anti-bullying/pro-empathy message off-stage.
FRIEND STRONG THEATER KIDS!
Six cast members: Andrew Greenspun, Sarah Nerenberg, Tiarra Towns, Ethan Katz, Mollie Ehrenberg and Alexander Iofee signed up for a development focus group. The group developed the idea of "Friend Mail" (because everyone loves getting mail and they wanted to make victims of bullying feel like celebrities getting "fan mail"), the Project's name and - especially important to them - the letter guidelines assuring the safety of all participants and Recipients under-18. The Be A Friend Project was developed by theater kids to carry into action the musical's "speak up, reach out and be a friend" message - and it's theater kids that continue to drive the national initiative today! By late 2015, the Project launched; the first Friend Mail Recipient was a 12-year-old in New Jersey named "Anthony." He received 75 letters in a tote bag. Today, Recipients recieve on average 1,400 letters, about 30 pounds worth, in a large decorated bin.
A Broadway World Award-Winning Professional Production!
While the Be A Friend Project, managed by Jennifer Young as an initiative of See The Wish, was collecting letters for its 2nd Recipient in October 2015, the Playwrights workshopped their musical - hiring youth and adult actors for a Theater Lab at the Garrison Depot Theater, NY. Characters, scenes and songs were refined, added and dropped thanks to the performances of these theater professionals, some of whom went on to be cast as leads in the upcoming professional run! The show's tagline was changed from "An Anti-Bullying Musical" to "The Friend Strong Musical" to put a positive spin on the show's message.
In 2017, See The Wish Onstage, led by January as Director/Co-Playwright/Composer and Jennifer as Producer/Co-Playwright raised the curtain on the first professional production of "IT'S EASY! The Friend Strong Musical": a 10-week run at the Irvington Town Hall Theater in New York with a cast of 28 middle school actors and 16 adults. The show WON EIGHT BROADWAY WORLD AWARDS including BEST MUSICAL PRODUCTION, BEST DIRECTION (YAY, January!), BEST ENSEMBLE, BEST SCENIC DESIGN and BEST CHOREO for the Westchester/Rockland region of NY.
"DRAMA...IT'S ALL ABOUT EMPATHY"
BE A FRIEND PROJECT TAKES THE STAGE FOR A SURPRISE DELIVERY:
The 2017 show displayed a Friend "Mailbox" in the lobby for audiences to deposit their letters for current Recipient, "Robert" - a 10-year-old from Pennsylvania, referred by TEACH Anti-Bullying Inc., who had recently switched schools due to severe bullying that resulted in a concussion benching him from his beloved baseball team. Robert's parents and TAB Founders Claudio and Daniella Cerullo helped us pull off our biggest surprise delivery yet. As a set-up, the Cerullo's invited Robert and his parents to the October 8th show. The Tarrytown House Estate in NY donated a night's stay for the family. At Curtain Call, Robert was brought up to the stage by the cast for a surprise delivery of 1,103 letters of peer support, followed by a Meet & Greet fit for a celebrity on the Irvington Town Hall Theater's side balcony.
ROCK STARS OF THE ANTI-BULLYING WORLD CAME TOGETHER TO SUPPORT ROBERT and attended a Meet & Greet after the show, along with Be A Friend Project Super Ambassadors from the cast and community! Anti-Bullying leadership included Dr. Claudio & Daniella Cerullo of TEACH Anti-Bullying, Egypt Ufele of "Bullychasers" and Sarah Goff of UNIFY Against Bullying who led the youths in doing the UNIFY Challenge (hands over mouth symbolizing the silence associated with bullying.)
RIPPLES OF KINDNESS SPREAD - IT'S EASY!
Wherever "IT'S EASY!" is performed in the USA and worldwide, acts-of-kindness and community service spring forth - from cast & crew, cast parents and audience members - and further the mission of the Be A Friend Project that it launched.
Check out the slideshow for a sampling of the love & inspiration that rippled out from JUST the 2017 professional show, a phenomenon with each show! We mean it when we say, it's more than a middle school musical - it's a game changer:
PlAYWRIGHTS CREATE LICENSABLE EDITION OF "IT'S EASY!"
THE PLAYWRIGHTS WEAVE THE BE A FRIEND PROJECT INTO THE REVISED PLOT OF "IT'S EASY!"
In the debut production, "Goodwin Middle Schoolers" were raising funds for animal rescue... and now they would be gathering letters for the Be A Friend Project, making it easier for Educators and Directors to tie-in the Project with the show to strengthen its anti-bullying, pro-empathy message in their school and community. After re-writes, the Playwrights invited the 2017 cast to perform a staged reading of the revised edition of the show in December of 2017. Performers were brought into the Riverworks Recording Studio in Dobbs Ferry, NY, with Sound Engineer, Matt Noble, and January directing, to record Vocal Reference Tracks for the upcoming "IT'S EASY! Licensing Kit. Singers took time to write letters of support to the current Recipient, Emma, when waiting their turn to sing!
LICENSED INTERNATIONALLY BY JUNE 2019!
In 2018, See The Wish released the middle school musical for licensing and selected three theatrical entities to premiere the revised licensable edition, going INTERNATIONAL with a June 2019 production opening in Seoul, South Korea!
BE A FRIEND PROJECT COMES INTO ITS OWN AS A NATIONAL NON-PROFIT 501C3 IN AUGUST 2019!
In August of 2019, the Be A Friend Project came into ts own as a national 501c3 not-for-profit organization delivering letters of peer support to young victims of bullying across the country. At that date, the Project had delivered more than 24,000 transformational letters of peer support with a record of over 2,000 letters per Recipient from K-12 students across the country. National Be A Friend Project Ambassadors are winning community awards for their anti-bullying work and positive impact. The Project is now the exclusive Licensor of "It's Easy!" to educational entities such as schools and theater programs. The Playwrights and Co-Founders were thrilled to be awarded New York State and City Proclamations in 2019 for their anti-bullying work as Honorees at the Riverdale Rising Stars YM-YWHA Annual Broadway Gala, returning to the show's debut stage. In October of 2020, the Be A Friend Project goes international by selecting a 13-year-old Friend Mail Recipient in Canada - proving that while cyber-bullies have no boundaries, neither does friendship.
With GREAT CEREMONY, See The Wish was dissolved in December 2019, superseded by the Be A Friend Project which carries on its legacy with Co-Founders Jennifer as Executive Director and January as a Development/Theater Consultant.
The Founding Board of Directors, pictured with a celebratory toast, giant black & white cookie and "Sydney's" Friend Mail Bin, are B.T. McNicholl (Theater Advisor), Jennifer Kennett (Secretary), Jennifer Young (Executive Director), Chair Lillian Diaz-Withers and (on computer) Vincent Puglisi (Treasurer) joining virtually from Florida.